For several years, Jean and Bob Messina looked at the fortresslike property next door to their Mount Holly home with interest.
And no wonder. Known locally as "The Castle," the handsome stone structure, complete with porte cochere and turret, was, by almost any standard, intriguing.
"We were quite happy in the home we occupied," Jean says, noting that they had already put some work into the stately Federal-style house they had purchased in 1987. "But it was missing some things we'd always wanted, like large trees and a pool."
When the Messinas learned that the Castle had gone into foreclosure, they decided to have a peek. Pure curiosity, they reasoned.
What they saw was a house in serious disrepair, crying out for rescue from crumbling plaster, questionable plumbing, and weary carpeting (the pool and leafy backyard notwithstanding).
But the floor plan was ideal for entertaining. Bob is the longtime president of Burlington County College, and he and his wife often host college functions.
The couple took a second look, and then some, before they actually bought the house. "We had even thought earlier of asking to buy some of its land, but here was the whole package," says Bob.
Jean recalls how her initial reaction to the rundown place morphed into the realization that it could become a fantastic home.
So it came to pass that the Messinas moved there in 1997 and began to rehab. And then something unexpected happened: They were approached by a local hospital about making the Castle into a designer show house. If they agreed, the Messinas would have to scurry to finish the structural changes.
Thus, after less than a year in their home, the Messinas moved out again, this time to a place just across the street, where they would remain for three months as legions of designers went about decorating, then opened the property to the public.
"People thought we were so lucky," recalls Jean, who found the process a bit overwhelming, and certainly unsettling.
Her husband is more emphatic: "I'd never do it again!"
Though some of what the designers created back then remains intact, other work has been changed or eliminated. The Messinas were determined to make the Castle their own, and they have succeeded in creating a remarkable home that blends the formal with the casual.
"Our goal was to maintain the home's integrity and history, but also to make it livable," says Jean. "We want our family and friends to feel absolutely comfortable. This is definitely not a 'don't sit on the furniture' kind of place."
The entry foyer is a perfect example. Room-sized, the space is free of excesses, but it does feature a striking Empire-style breakfront found at a local antiques shop. It's the kind of piece that demands a large area, but also serves as a functional bar and offers storage within.
The living room is set with a traditional roll-arm sofa in muted gray stripes and coordinating wing chairs.
The Messinas were initially disappointed when they found the room's intricate wood-beamed ceiling painted over in off-white, and thought they'd take those beams back down to their original wood. But when a former occupant stopped by during a Christmas house tour, she explained that that her father had deliberately lightened the beams because the room was so dreary and dark.
"That did it. We love light, so we kept the beams as they were," says Jean.
The parlor, partially nestled in the turret area, is Christmas Tree Central from the weekend after Thanksgiving through the holiday season, with a handsome evergreen presiding over the graceful, rounded portion of the room. Burlington County College students are invited each year to help decorate the tree, a tradition the Messinas cherish.
But it is the dining room that's pressed into service all year round, and particularly through the Christmas season. (The Messinas host eight to 10 parties through December, mostly for faculty, staff, and students, and this year the Castle also was part of a Mount Holly Open House Holiday Tour.)
The room itself is dominated by a magnificent coffered ceiling and features Grecian-themed murals created when it was a show house.
"We loved the way the murals turned out, and they have remained with us," says Jean. "This is probably our most formal room, and it's also the room where so many memories have been made."
The Messinas lead very public lives. As president of a college with 12,000 full- and part-time students, Bob is seldom far from his cell phone, even at home. And Jean, a retired ICU nurse, is deeply involved in Main Street Mount Holly, a volunteer-driven nonprofit whose mission is to protect, promote, and enhance the historic downtown area.
Hence that impressive, imposing castle of theirs gets to do double duty, too - as private retreat.
With a fireplace and easy chairs at the far end of the kitchen, it's the perfect spot for just chilling out.